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The Complexities of Managing More than 1 Million Square Feet of Educational Space

by Kate Proto


Committed to Greatness




Approaching the utility garage, Larry Daniel was cautious. Electricity at CICS Basil in the city’s Englewood neighborhood had been flickering in and out all morning, and Daniel, a Facilities Director at Chicago International Charter School, had received numerous complaints.

But with 17 properties to look after, 5 of which are owned by the network, 8 of which are leased from the Archdiocese, and 2 of which are CPS buildings, maintaining school buildings that are up to code and meeting occupants’ needs is a constant challenge. The leased properties present a unique set of challenges for CICS, as illustrated in Mr. Daniel’s recollection. In the opinion of CICS Chief Operating Officer, Tom McGrath, “We are on the hook for all of the buildings, regardless

Daniel carefully pried open the garage window and peered in. He discovered that a thief had cut all of the electrical cords in the garage and neighboring convent, the copper wire removed, live wires popping. “We couldn’t have that type of activity. We concreted the windows shut and installed a metal door to the garage with a gate surrounding the garage. We haven’t had a problem since,” recalls Daniel. While an extreme example, this is an illustration of the complex nature of the CICS facilities team’s job of managing more than one million square feet of school facilities, many of which are in high-crime areas. Without safe, secure environments, children cannot focus on learning and teachers cannot teach effectively.



Thus, when CICS inherits such spaces, the facilities team has to invest significant resources to bring buildings up to standards.

Community Builders These investments do not go unnoticed in a city that has seen a pattern of decline in parochial

Without safe, secure environments, children cannot focus on learning and teachers cannot teach effectively. of whether we own or rent them. All students deserve the same quality of facility, so we don’t short the occupants who are in a leased space—we make repairs across the board to ensure the buildings are up to code and tenantable.” Understandably, many of the archdiocesan properties were former parochial schools that fell into disrepair over a number of years, as the landlords were deferring maintenance due to a lack of resources.

FocalPoint | Winter–Spring 2013

school enrollment, leading many such schools to face closure as the only option. Working with parishes is a symbiotic relationship; the partnership between parish leaders and CICS campuses helps build the community. CICS benefits from having access to buildings in which neighborhood children can receive an education, and the parish is able to stay open and serve the wider community.

Father Gabriel of St. Anselm’s parish, which neighbors CICS Washington Park, puts it this way: “It’s a blessing that CICS is serving the children in this area. After we could no longer run a school ourselves and closed the St. Anselm’s school, the charter school came and it was such a good thing. Sometimes God closes one door and opens a window. Quite naturally, I don’t know how our church could remain open otherwise­— CICS recently renewed its contract for another 10 years, that gives us 10 more years of hope.” Father Gabriel’s assistant, Fredericka, wholeheartedly agrees that the partnership is beneficial. “Everybody’s on the same page. The CICS Washington Park and St. Anselm’s group, we get together regularly and we strive to be in constant communication. Sometimes there are issues to resolve, like when our parishioners need to use the school cafeteria for repasts, or we require parking lot space for a funeral, but it’s not a gripe fest. We’re a household and we all have our parts.”

Facilities by the Numbers CICS manages 17 properties and 16 campuses.

The dearth of quality buildings in Chicago means budgets are often consumed by the effort to maintain aged and historically neglected buildings at the expense of investing in improvements that promote and elevate the educational experience of the student.

Fredericka notes that the shared mission is really all about improving the lives of community members. “For me, the most important thing is seeing the students – they know CICS has high expectations of them, and the school calms them down, gives them the order and

discipline they need. None of us can control what happens at home, but who a child hangs out with, the expectations he has within himself, it instills a spark in him that is catching. His parents, his siblings, see the change in him and it sparks a change at home.”

Patching leaks with student dollars While CICS serves neighborhood public school children, charter schools are not given access to the district’s capital budget. A principal in any traditional CPS school is given a budget to spend on education only, knowing that their building will be taken care of with a separate source of funds— whereas charter school leaders in non-CPS buildings have to give up operating revenues which were intended to be spent on teacher salaries and educational necessities to fi nance facilities essentials.

Father Gabriel, of St. Anselm’s Catholic Church, reflects on the shared mission of CICS Washington Park and his parish: “We are very grateful for all of the work CICS has put in, you have done marvelous things and our church members notice this. We all enjoy working with young people to have a dream—how do you achieve a dream if you don’t have a dream?”


owned by the network CICS Basil CICS Northtown CICS Longwood CICS Loomis CICS Ralph Ellison


leased from the archdiocese CICS West Belden CICS Bucktown CICS Avalon CICS Prairie CICS Washington Park CICS Irving Park CICS Wrightwood CICS Lloyd Bond


buildings owned by cps CICS ChicagoQuest CICS Larry Hawkins


buildings leased from St. Edmunds Episcopal Parish at Washington Park-South from Patriots’ Gateway Community Center– Rockford

Committed to Greatness




While CPS has strived to alleviate some of this burden, many facilities experts said the $425 per pupil supplement provided to charters in the 20112012 school year was not enough. Due to the Gates Foundation’s impetus, the $425 was raised to a $750 per-pupil amount that began in the 2012-2013 school year, and will increase once more in the 2013-2014 school year. Interestingly, there is no mechanism in place to guarantee that CPS would adjust this number in the future, to recognize the natural increase in costs that charter school facilities teams will incur to adjust to real market changes. As McGrath puts it, “One-size-fitsall doesn’t necessarily work.”

While no one will debate the benefits they can offer, inadequate funding forces Illinois charters to think of improvements such as this CICS Longwood playground as luxury items. Here, students enjoy access to a playground that was previously out of order.

So Illinois charters are faced with a dilemma. The law currently states districts can fund charters at 75% of the per capita tuition charge that they pay traditional schools. Add to that the additional burden of having to pay for facilities fi xes out of student educational coffers, and one could argue it is the children and teachers who are being hurt the most. The CICS facilities team faces decisions on a daily basis that many single mothers face. Do I feed my children (with knowledge) or do I put a roof over their heads?



FocalPoint | Winter–Spring 2013

The DecisionMaking Process To anyone who has not worked in construction or real estate, the process and corresponding costs can be staggering for even the slightest facilities upgrade.

Further, the city permitting process can increase scope and budget by imposing additional conditions due to unforeseen ADA code or city landscape ordinance requirements. And of course, many upgrades that CICS pursues are based on a mandate from the city to come

The CICS facilities team faces decisions on a daily basis that many single mothers face. Do I feed my children (with knowledge) or do I put a roof over their heads? First you have to pay engineers and architects to create the plans, then there is the cost of professional services and fees to obtain necessary permits.

into compliance with various codes. When embarking on a project plan, especially for an older building with latent environmental problems behind the walls, the CICS facilities

“The gym floor overhaul was much anticipated at CICS West Belden and we are so grateful. Not only does it look bright and beautiful, our students notice the extra bounce and improved traction. In my 6 years here, I’ve never seen our kids so excited about our PE facilities. Additionally, the freshly painted basketball and volleyball lines offer an opportunity for students to explore dimensions and the consistent theme of math in sports.” – Matt Cullen, teacher, CICS West Belden

CICS has managed to provide some impressive upgrades to buildings new and old, which helps bolster student and teacher morale, keeps kids safe and focused on learning, and provides a symbol of hope in the community. A cross-section of recent projects:

team puts the contingency in at 30% “because once you get started, you know you’re going to fi nd something additional that needs immediate attention,” says McGrath. Despite these challenges, McGrath and his team strive to do their best: “Every week we are asking our campuses, are there functional problems we are not aware of? We seek constant feedback to hone in on the most dire day-to-day necessities. For long-term planning, we formally ask each campus in January what priorities they might have for summer facilities projects—we prioritize life safety fi rst and go from there. We also take into account the extent to which the educational outcomes could be improved with a given enhancement.” //

Secure spaces

“In an ideal circumstance, the district would provide charters with tenantable buildings and leave the core competency of education to us, but we do the most sensitive job we can.”

Some project decisions come from within the same facility, like choosing to complete a phased roofi ng project at CICS Northtown over fi xing the drafty windows—fi xing the windows alone would have cost 40% of the CICS facilities expenditures in a given year.

Safe space to play CICS Washington Park’s parking lot was resurfaced because the students play there and potholes were posing a problem.

Educational technology IT infrastructure upgrades have been necessary across the network to help utilize educational technology like interactive whiteboards.

Basic health and safety Abatement of asbestos and lead at CICS Prairie, Wrightwood and West Belden.

– Tom McGrath, COO of CICS Committed to Greatness



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The challenge of keeping all facilities up to standard without public dollars presents a challenge to charter schools.

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